June Burn, who moved to the San Juan Islands in 1919 to become a homesteader, wrote in her acclaimed memoir, Living High, “[The San Juan Islands are] a haven secure against wants and trouble — a fortune cached away which none can thieve ….” The islands have been a destination for those like Burn who seek to live a simpler life in the forest, fields and coastlines that feel removed from the rest of the world.
The islands once offered a different kind of life and culture, with many residents like Burn who had little means beyond a dream of living simply. Today, however, San Juan County has some of the most expensive housing and one of the highest wealth gaps in the state, and is experiencing a change in culture and lifestyle, according to residents.
For over 10,000 years the islands were home to Coast Salish people whose population was decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. The islands experienced their first major changes after exploration by the Spanish and the British which led to decades-long territory disputes, culminating with Americans claiming the islands after a boundary dispute with the occupying British in 1872.
The 1862 Homestead Act offered free land to those who would cultivate it and brought many Americans who farmed, fished, logged and produced limestone to build a thriving economy and a self-sufficient community. The islands thrived until the 1930s, when industry could no longer compete with the mainland and many residents left.
“A lot of people did pretty well,” with a steady income and abundant jobs, according to Kevin Loftus, executive director of the San Juan Historical Museum. “No one was incredibly affluent, but [they were] successful,” he said.
The 1970s saw the beginning of a steep population rise. By the mid-1990s the economy relied mainly on tourism, which has been steadily increasing since.
The 2020 census showed that Washington’s population had grown in a decade by 16.2%, nearly double that of the rest of the nation. San Juan County had grown by 15%, to around 18,600. Fueling the growth were the expanding tech industry, agricultural jobs and an influx of remote workers working online — digital nomads — for companies across the country while choosing to live in Washington.
Looking ahead, Office of Financial Management demographer and forecaster Mike Mohrman and others predict additional growth.
In 2020, San Juan County’s median household income was $68,577 — the eighth highest in the state. In 2021, 10.9% — roughly 1,900 residents — lived at or below the poverty level, based on income level, cost of food and family size. The number was up from 9.2% in 2000.
The discrepancy between those well above the poverty level and those at or below is widening. Using a Gini coefficient to represent income inequality where a score of 1 indicates the highest level of income inequality and 0 indicates perfect income equality, San Juan County scores at 0.52, the third highest for any county in the state, which averages around 0.46.
‘Brutal’ housing market
Merri Ann Simonson, a realtor on San Juan Island, characterizes the housing market as tough for those who are younger and in a lower income bracket. “Every now and then we get some younger people looking to buy,” she said, but the current market is largely second-home owners who are over 65.
The cost of housing on the island has skyrocketed, marking a big shift from 1995, when Simonson became a realtor on the islands. Not only was there much more inventory and a broader range in the prices of houses she was selling, prices were lower. The median cost of a home in 2010 was roughly $450,000; by 2020, it had nearly doubled to $890,000.
The “under $400,000 market has been brutal,” with few options available that aren’t “just a garage on a piece of dirt,” Simonson said.
The shortage of inventory affects not only real estate prices but housing availability. Housing Lopez , which builds affordable housing on the island, says Lopez sees the biggest difference between year-round and summer residents, with about 52% of houses considered vacant most of the year, noted board member Melora Hiller. Available housing is also limited by the fact that the majority of island homes are single-family, with limited lower-priced apartments.
The option to build housing also tends to be reserved for those with deeper pockets because of the increasing expense of materials, shipping costs to the island and strict land preservation laws, Hiller said. Even bare land costs more. In the 1970s, according to a long-time Lopez Island farmer who serves on the board of the San Juan County Land Bank, an acre of land was around $750; now it often sells for over 40 times that.
Due to more demand for places to live, rents have skyrocketed. According to state-collected data, the average rent for a studio apartment in 2006 was around $570. In 2022, it is around $1,000. Using a basic household economics rule of thumb that housing should cost no more than one-third of annual income, one should earn at least $36,000 to rent a studio apartment.
When renters are unable to purchase property, they hold on to their rentals longer, making rentals much scarcer. According to a report by Housing Lopez, these rentals tend to be below code standards (many still have lead paint), older and smaller.
More people in need
Rachelle Radonski, manager of the Friday Harbor Food Bank, said that she has seen an uptick in customers who have to choose to pay rent or buy food. The food bank currently serves 370 customers a week, a steep increase from 115 per week in 2018. She said that many of her customers are in lower-paying farm or service jobs, and that she sees an increase of customers in the winter, when tourism slows down. These are the people, she said, who “keep the island running.”
As an example of someone looking for affordable housing, Hiller recalled a preschool teacher who had been searching for housing for months. Not finding a place to live would mean she would have to limit the hours that the preschool was open, further reducing already-scarce child care due to a lack of teachers.
The changes that the islands have seen in recent decades have created anxiety for many. In an informal poll by the Salish Current asking residents to share their experiences of living in the islands and what changes they’ve seen over time, 46 out of the 49 responses described the changes they’ve seen as negative, most frequently citing the lack of affordable housing, increasing affluence and tourism, and loss of culture.
Working for the ‘good life’
By the time Henning Sehmsdorf moved to Lopez in 1969, there were fewer year-round residents farming. Sehmsdorf brought a simple vision of farming to provide healthy food to his family on the small salary he had from teaching.
In those days, the dream of owning a farm was much more realizable, he said. Now, he laments, it is extremely challenging for young farmers to start farming given the high cost of land, unless they have deep pockets. As a result, there are fewer small farmers — many of whom are practicing innovative, ecologically responsible methods that could help to bring a local food source back to the island and make food access affordable.
Sehmsdorf has established affordable housing on his own land, where he’s given over a piece of his property to families in exchange for working on his farm. He has also chosen to donate his land to the land trust when he dies to provide a rentable farming space for those without their own land to farm.
Thirty-three-year-old Patrick McEvoy lives on San Juan Island and, like Sehmsdorf, came with a dream. McEvoy, a recreational rock climber for roughly 10 years, thought that the island was the perfect place to start a climbing gym, and generally an easier place to start a business without competition. He opened a gym in 2021 and was looking to expand the business until the high cost of commercial space put a halt to his plans.
He sees the islands as having lost community spaces such as bars and restaurants that are affordable to the average resident, and that this has resulted in more businesses that cater to tourists or seek to simply offer higher-cost amenities like those offered on the mainland.
He’s watched his young friends struggle to find ways to stay on the islands and pursue their dreams. He hopes to stay here and bring back more affordable community spaces that enable music and community events for year-round residents. He seeks to bring islanders together in a community he sees as increasingly divided.
Available to all?
While the issues of available and affordable housing and child care aren’t unique to the islands, the isolation and separation of the islands mean that if housing is unavailable or unaffordable, there’s no easy option to commute from a more affordable area to work.
When living in the islands is no longer possible, it means leaving both one’s home and livelihood, a hard choice for those who have come to love the islands and for those who find island living a separation from the issues of the mainland — a place many people chose to escape from.
To June Burn, the islands were a place of richness for their lack of monetary needs, “We felt like millionaires. We were secure now, whatever might come. We could take our cow and tools, make a garden on Waldron, build cabins there, fish and live practically on nothing at all.”
Now, money has become a large factor in whether a simple lifestyle with little means as Burn found and many still seek can still be an option in the San Juan Islands.
There is hope in the work of Hiller, Radonski, Sehmsdorf, McEvoy and others attempting to make the islands available to all, and in the financial support from wealthier residents who support that work.
Whether islanders come together to support one another and the islands’ culture may serve as a critical example for how communities choose to respond to wealth inequality across the country. Burn wrote of her two years on Waldron in the 1930s that “the island pattern changed a lot,” with those coming in and out, an influx of older folks and then a trove “of idealistic and beautiful young couples [who] came swarming here in search of ‘the good life’,” — a lifestyle Burn thought should be available to all.
—Reported by Kathryn Wheeler
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